Returning Putnam Stars Look to Crack Top 10 for First Time in BYU History

Coming off of their highest ranking in the past three decades, BYU’s Department of Mathematics is excited for the upcoming Putnam Mathematical Competition this December.

Returning BYU Putnam stars, Hiram Golze and Sam Dittmer, have their hopes set high as this national competition approaches. Golze, who is entering his third year of competition, feels BYU can place in the top 10 at this year’s contest. He earned an honorable mention at last year’s Putnam competition, in which BYU placed 16th.

Dittmer, the 2006 national high school math champion from Indiana, is entering his second year of competition after recently returning home from a mission to Albania. As a freshman, Dittmer placed 54th in the 2008 competition and also received an honorable mention.

The Putnam competition, held annually across college campuses throughout America and Canada, features 12 problems divided into two three-hour tests. Any undergraduate student can take the Putnam test, but only three students chosen by each school will actually represent the school in the contest.

“To get on the Putnam team is very competitive, and there are a couple students who are very into these kinds of tests,” said Pace Nielsen, problem-solving club coordinator and assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics. “They want to do the best they can.”

Students can prepare for the upcoming Putnam competition by participating in the Intermountain Mathematics Competition this October. It acts as a “warm-up contest,” according to Golze, and is used by the Math Department to scout potential students who can compete in the Putnam competition.

Students’ scores from the Intermountain Mathematics Competition will be a key factor in determining the third and final student that will participate in the Putnam competition next to Dittmer and Golze. Students can also prepare for the Putnam exam by enrolling in Math 391R, taught by Professor Tiancheng Ouyang, which covers methods of proof and advanced techniques.

Coming up with the right concepts and applying them to the problems under limited time constraints are what make the Putnam exam so difficult. Both Dittmer and Golze practice old Putnam exam problems to prepare for the competition and try to learn the tricks underlying the problems.

“A lot of times you might be able to do all the problems if you were given a week, and if you were allowed to use research materials to look up all the concepts, but when you go in, you can’t use anything except for what’s in your head,” Golze said. “There’s no calculators; there’s no rulers, compasses or straightedges. You have to just do whatever you can with your pencil and yourself.”

Dittmer says he hasn’t experienced too much of a lag returning to school after his mission, and he feels he can do better this year at the Putnam competition than he did his freshman year. He is focused on mastering his math instincts in analysis, geometry and number theory.

“The most important thing is just getting used to the feel of it,” Dittmer said. “You kind of have to get this gut feel for when you see a problem. What direction am I going to go in trying to solve it? How long do I go in that direction before I give up and realize it was a bad idea and switch to a different direction?”

As the competition approaches, the goal continues to remain clear: place in the top 10.

BYU’s highest finish to date came in 1979 when the team ranked 11th. Cracking the top 10 would be a momentous accomplishment for BYU and the Department of Mathematics.

“That’s our long term goal,” Nielsen said. “Get in the top 10, and then stay there.”

By Chris Scheitinger Posted on